China explores fighting virus with TCM

This month is when millions of people travelling to and out of and within China go home after the festive break, increasing potential spread of virus

It is not unusual for viruses like chickenpox to trigger only mild infections in children and much more severe illnesses in adults. The Chinese government wants to try treating patients infected with the new coronavirus with a mix of Western drugs an
The Chinese government wants to try treating patients infected with the new coronavirus with a mix of Western drugs and traditional Chinese medicine. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEIJING • As it races to treat patients infected with the new coronavirus, the Chinese government is seeing potential in a cocktail of antiviral drugs.

It is also recommending the Peaceful Palace Bovine Pill, a traditional medicine made with the gallstones of cattle, buffalo horn, jasmine and pearl.

There is no known cure for the coronavirus.

The country's National Health Commission said doctors should try treating patients mainly with a combination of Western drugs used to treat HIV and fight viruses, depending on the severity of illness.

But the government is also looking at ways to supplement the treatment with remedies that are integral to its national identity - traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

It has its supporters. "I think it is the correct approach," said Dr Cheng Yung-chi, a professor of pharmacology at Yale University School of Medicine. "The evidence is going to come and we have to give it the benefit of the doubt."

Practitioners said the regimen could help ease symptoms, such as swelling in the lungs, with fewer side effects. Critics said the use of such concoctions could raise concerns about patient safety.

In turning to TCM, China is relying on past experience.

During the severe acute respiratory Syndrome, or Sars, outbreak in 2003, doctors found that steroids prescribed to reduce inflammation had harmful side effects such as bone destruction.

Chinese medicine, they said, would mitigate some of these adverse effects.

In its treatment plan for the coronavirus released last Wednesday, the National Health Commission recommended TCM remedies that could be used with antiretroviral HIV drugs such as Lopinavir and Ritonavir.

The national health department suggested trying the Peaceful Palace Bovine Pill for severe symptoms such as respiratory distress.

Some hospitals are already using a combination of Western and Chinese medicines.

In recent weeks, Beijing's health department reported that two patients who were discharged had been treated with TCM together with other unspecified drugs.

And in Guangzhou, health officials said 50 patients reported having no more fever and half of them said their coughs went away after using TCM and other drugs.

Doctors are conducting clinical trials to test the efficacy of TCM in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, said Dr Cheng, who is also chair of the Consortium for the Globalisation of Chinese Medicine, a group of academics in the field.

After the Sars outbreak, the World Health Organisation studied the use of TCM during that period and determined that they were safe and showed some potential in relieving symptoms such as fatigue.

Researchers from the United States and Taiwan found that certain herbs could suppress the virus, while other studies said their findings were inconclusive.

That scientific uncertainty is not stopping the Chinese government.

The authorities in Wuhan said coronavirus patients with light or moderate symptoms should be treated with TCM, the state-run Beijing News reported.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2020, with the headline China explores fighting virus with TCM. Subscribe